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Public funding for the arts is a hotly-debated topic, but let's look at where arts funding goes, what it accomplishes, and how we compare internationally. Check out Origin of Everything's take!: https://youtu.be/RYIZFCIEYVs. And to try Audible for 30 days visit https://www.audible.com/artassignment or text "artassignment" to 500 500.

Thanks to our Grandmaster of the Arts Vincent Apa, and all of our patrons, especially Ian Eudailey, Patrick Hanna, Nichole Hicks, Eve Leonard, David Moore, Ever Morales, Jane Quale, and Constance Urist. To support our channel, visit: http://www.patreon.com/artassignment.

Thumbnail image depicts Urban Bush Women, whose work has been funded by the NEA: https://www.urbanbushwomen.org.

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We'd like to thank Audible for supporting PBS.

The views discussed in this episode do not necessarily reflect the views of PBS or its member stations. All thoughts an opinions presenter here are from me, Sarah Green.

Also, full disclosure - PBS has received funding from the NEH and NEA. However, neither PBS digital studios or Art Assignment funding has come from these organizations to date.

You've heard it before: "My tax dollars are paying for what now‽" It's said about a wide range of public programs, but you've probably heard it at least once about art. It may have been photographs of unclothed men, graphic performance art, an image of a crucifix submerged in urine. You probably haven't heard complaints about art therapy for veterans, the honouring of jazz legends, after-school theatre programs in under served communities, mural projects on the Cheyenne River Lakota Reservation in South Dakota or the show that wouldn't have travelled to your town otherwise.

In the United States, the issue of whether art should be publicly funded tends to come up only when there's a controversy or when a new budget proposal is released. Defenders tend to focus on the relatively minuscule amount of spending it takes to run these programs in the U.S. And it's true. In 2018, funding the national endowment for the arts constituted .004% of the federal budget. But I'd like to take a look at what this kind of funding actually accomplishes, how other countries support the arts and how this kind of spending affects your life in ways you may not be aware of.

In 1965, U.S. president Lyndon Johnson signed a congressional act that declares that 'The arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States' and that they 'reflect the high place accorded by the American people to the nation's rich cultural heritage and to the fostering of mutual respect for the diverse beliefs and values of all persons and groups. The act established the national endowment for the arts and for the humanities as independent agencies of the federal government, both of which have been in operation since, despite routine threats to defund them.

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Since its inception, the NEA has awarded more than 145,000 grants totaling more than $5 billion, either directly, through state and regional agencies, or in partnership with other organizations.  Its first grant went to the American Ballet Theater and it has since contributed to a huge range of exhibitions, performances, residencies, festivals, competitions, radio programs and podcasts, and education initiatives all over the country, yes, even in Guam. 

Its mission is to "strengthen the creative capacity of our communities by providing all Americans with diverse opportunities for arts participation," and they take this charge seriously.  Here's a map that shows you how widely NEA grants were distributed in a given year, reaching every single congressional district in the US.  

Public funding for the arts in the US has given many prized cultural leaders their start.  NEA grants funded the original production of The Great White Hope in 1967, starring young actors James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander.  Alice Walker received the NEA Discovery Award in 1970.  The NEA was a partner in the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and it has engaged in numerous efforts to preserve history, while also encouraging growth and innovation in the arts.  It has brought treasures to the US from all over the world and likewise helped bring the work of American artists to the rest of the world.

Now, of course, the United States did not invent this idea.  England created the Committee for Encouragement of Music & the Arts in 1940, which morphed over time into the Arts Council England that exists today.  A royal charter from 1946 established its aim to "develop and improve the knowledge, understanding, and practice of the arts and increase accessibility of the arts to the public in England."  It also aims to provide arts education and maintain and operate museums and libraries.  The Arts Council England will distribute more than $577 million pounds or $750 million dollars this year, using a combination of funding from the government and the National Lottery.

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The French Ministry of Culture was established in 1959, but you can certainly trace its lineage of arts funding back much further than that.  Before it was a democracy or a republic, France supported the arts through its monarchy, of course.  Louis XIV was an unparalleled patron of the arts and before that was Francois I who supported a number of artists and brought Leonardo Da Vinci to his royal court during the Italian Renaissance.  

Art has long been a way for rulers to establish their legitimacy and demonstrate their power.  As far back as 4,000 years ago, Gudea, the ruler of Lagash in Mesopotamia, commissioned a series of statues that served as a kind of stand-in for himself displayed in temples to demonstrate his piety to the gods as well as his wealth and power to everyone who visited, and art has long been a way for nations to visualize and solidify their common ideals, venerating shared symbols, occupying communal spaces, understanding their histories and imagining their futures. 

But back to France.  Current French president Emmanuel Macron followed up on a campaign promise to improve youth access to the arts by working with the ministry of culture to release a mobile app called Culture Pass.  Described by The Guardian as "like Tinder for the arts", it shows you cultural offerings in your area and makes it easy to get the details, reserve tickets, and so forth, and if it's the year of your 18th birthday, it comes preloaded with 500 euros of culture credit to spend.

It's one of many programs supported by the Ministry of Culture whose funding buget for this year is a whopping 3.63 billion euros, the equivalent of more than $4 billion.  The German Cultural Council, founded in 1981, oversees 258 federal cultural associations and in 2018 announced a large increase in budget to nearly $2 billion overall.  This includes the kind of arts funding you might expect as well as kinds you maybe wouldn't, like an annual computer game prize.


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Germany also makes available a social insurance system for self-employed artists, paying for about half of their health insurance and pension fees.  Mexico has had a program since 1957 that gives artists the opportunity to pay their federal income taxes with their own art, as long as it meets quality standards decided by a committee of artists and curators.  These artworks become a part of a national collection, some of which is on permanent display in Mexico City and some of which is loaned to public institutions across the country and around the world.

There are many different models for arts councils and ministries of culture around the world that allocate funding that ranges from very modest to well, France.  The NEA's appropriation for 2018 came to $152.8 million or around 3% of France's arts budget.  The bulk of arts funding in the US comes from the private sector and NEA grants are usually complements to that private funding, many of the grants even requiring that recipients match the amount awarded with other contributions.  But we also know that the NEA funding tends to attract that private support, with every $1 of NEA funding in 2016 leveraging $9 in outside funding.

This functions similarly in other parts of the world, where state funding for the arts is seen as the principle driver of philanthropic support.  For example, 80% of the funding for that French Culture Pass app came from the private sector and from partnerships with tech companies.  Many argue that if federal support for the arts is withdrawn, then private funders will sweep in to the rescue.  However, we know that these philanthropists tend to follow the leadership of federal arts agencies and unsurprisingly, when public support to a given institution declines, often does that of the private sector.  Furthermore, the wealthiest Americans live in the biggest cities, and their philanthropic efforts predominantly go to the arts institutions near where they live, so you can see public funding efforts as helping to channel philanthropy out of say, the capital of Panem and toward the cultivation and growth of culture in say, District 12.  

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40% of NEA-supported activities take place in high-poverty neighborhoods.  If public funding for the arts goes away, rich people will still have access to art.  It's just gonna be a lot harder for everyone else.  MoMA would continue to be MoMA, but without public funding, how do we ensure that voices are represented other than those of the rich, or those anointed by the rich?  

A critical function of public funding for the arts is the spotlight it shines on lesser heard and minority voices, as well as its assistance in the preservation of indigenous cultures.  For instance, a portion of the Australia Council for the Arts funding is focused specifically on opportunities for aboriginal and (?~8:43) islander artists.  

We used to think that the impact of the arts was something too difficult to quantify.  How, after all, can you put numbers behind something as nebulous as inspiration?  But there is a way, and the NEA works hard to evaluate the impact of their efforts, finding that disadvantaged 8th-12th graders who received arts education were three times more likely to earn a Bachelor's degree than those who lacked those experiences and also that at-risk young people who have access to the arts are more likely to have higher STEM scores, set higher career goals, and volunteer more.  They've also discovered that art education is associated with better problem solving, creative thinking, and civic engagement. 

Data released in 2018 by the NEA and the US Bureau of Economic Analysis revealed that 4.9 million Americans work in the arts and cultural industries, with earnings of more than $370 billion.  It also showed us that the arts contribute more than $760 billion to the US economy.  When you think about the 152.8 million appropriated to the NEA last year, that spending suddenly doesn't seem so wasteful or tangential to other government concerns like economic stability and growth.  Also, the American rich are disproportionately male and white, and so are those who benefit from the art market.

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If we leave our cultural future in the hands of the wealthy, we'll no doubt have a cultural future shaped and determined by their interests.  Art created by market forces ultimately tends to serve those forces and not the public.  The market values of artworks made by women, people of color, and minorities are improving, but don't come close to representing the diversity of the American people.  Do we really believe that the arts and the humanities belong to all the people of the United States, and if so, how much is it worth to try to keep it that way?  

There's this quote floating around about Winston Churchill's response to the proposed cutting of arts funding in the UK during the Second World War.  Supposedly, he said, "Then what are we fighting for?"  It's a wonderful sentiment, although it doesn't look like he ever actually said it, but there's something to it regardless, to the idea that at any given time, we're not just fighting for safety and security, we're fighting for the things that make life worth living and sometimes we don't know what those things are until an artist shows us.  Once we've seen it, we know that the world is so much better for having had it, whether it's The Color Purple, the only arts organization in your community, Hamilton, or yes, even images that might offend you. 

The exhibitions, performances, workshops, and events that are supported by government funds are places and moments where we come together to think about what we as a community value and what we don't, not where we come together as consumers, although you can usually exit through the gift shop, but where we intersect as thinking, feeling, sensing, beings with contrasting understandings of history, beliefs in our present, and hopes for our future.  We don't all agree on the appropriate scope of our government, but most of us do agree that art is a key part of the education of our children.  When does that fall away?  When did the arts stop being a critical part of our lives and start belonging only to the privileged?

If you'd like to learn more about the history of how the US government got into the game of funding art, you should check out my friend Danielle Bainbridge's video on the topic over at her channel, Origin of Everything.

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We'd like to thank Audible for supporting PBS.  Audible's selection of audiobooks includes Audible originals, audio titles created by storytellers from around the literary world.  For example, The Genius Dialogues, where host Bob Garfield sits down with MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant fellows, including artist Jorge Pardo, to learn about what events shaped their life and what they imagine our shared future might look like.  Visit audible.com/artassignment or text 'artassignment' to 500 500 to learn more.  Members own their books and can access them at any time.  

Thanks to our Patrons for supporting The Art Assignment, especially our grand master of the arts, Vincent Apa.  

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